There are few jobs in the world as thankless as either prison officer or probation officer. The hours are long, the workload is often considerable, and when something goes wrong – for example when a former offender either in prison or on probation re-offends – typically it’s officers, whose job it is to supervise those in the criminal justice system, who are the first to be blamed.
In recent weeks, a slip-up resulted in comments from the Ministry of Justice being accidentally published on a government website. The comments revealed that staffing levels in the prison and probation service were described as “dangerously low”. The result is that unless there is a rapid influx of new officers into the service, current officers will be saddled with unmanageable workloads, placing the public at serious and unnecessary risk.
If that rapid influx failed to materialise, the result would be that dangerous former offenders would not be managed in the community to an appropriately high standard. The fact that these comments come after three years of ‘levelling up’ is a damning indictment of the government’s failure to deliver on its post-Brexit promises of plentiful and well-paid jobs. As well as its failure to deliver stronger, more resilient communities as part of its post-Covid renewal.
A service at breaking point
A slow-motion crisis has been building in the prison and probation service for roughly ten years. I have a personal involvement in this story because, for a period of four years, I worked at one of the Ministry of Justice’s ‘approved premises’. For those who don’t grasp the strange lingo of the MoJ, the term ‘approved premises’ is how the MoJ likes to refer to those strange buildings in your community everyone knows as the ‘halfway house’ or ‘bail hostel’.
During my time at two approved premises, most staff I met were hard-working, diligent, and conscientious. But during those four years, it became apparent to me that many probation service workers across multiple disciplines were burnt out, exhausted, overworked, and tired from multiple changes to the service, including a disastrous privatisation headed by Chris Grayling, and a large refurbishment of many government buildings.
In my experience, staff also struggled to deal with increasingly high expectations from the government. The probation service has always been seen as a ‘soft cop’ service, being a combination of legal enforcement and a health and social care model. In Scotland, probation officers are known as ‘criminal justice social workers’, a job title that some would say more accurately reflects their role.
But in the context of 13 years of austerity, Brexit shrinking the economy, and a government that distrusts the probation service, towards the end of my time in the probation service it became increasingly apparent to me that the government had unrealistic expectations. Expecting the service to reduce risk to the public, and tolerate a greater degree of scrutiny and oversight, while simultaneously expecting officers to take on increasingly unmanageable workloads, will only lead to new victims.
Seven out of the 12 regions in the UK showed that officers were operating at 110% capacity or above. Some probation officers are working at 160% capacity, with some reporting they are working at 200%. A small, exhausted workforce overloaded with unmanageable caseloads, combined with a client group that is notoriously deceitful and duplicitous, is a recipe for disaster. There is a growing view that something must be done.
A slow-motion disaster
Few government reforms have been as disastrous as the privatisation of the probation service. In 2014, over two-thirds of the probation service was privatised without pilot schemes to ensure the viability of the reforms. The privatisation was a disaster, recent data showed that one person was killed by an offender under supervision every three days under the new privatised system. Over a third of staff said they regularly cut corners to meet targets. Privatisation was also ruinously expensive, costing at least £171mn for a reform that was abolished in 2019 when the service was put back in public hands again.
There is an argument that the privatisation of the probation service – in terms of cost, life and resources – was the worst since 2010 when the coalition came to power. Few reforms have been as costly to the public purse and delivered so little return.
One of the effects of privatisation was to accelerate the retirement of many long-serving officers and staff. Faced with the rigmarole of privatisation, many experienced officers chose to retire. Likewise, the pandemic was also the spur for many experienced officers to opt for retirement. In the context of the latest round of public sector cuts coming from Jeremy Hunt’s Treasury, the outlook looks bleak for the possibility of a return to 2013 when the prison and probation service was rated good or excellent.
A massive recruitment drive alone isn’t enough. Placing unrealistic expectations on officers is dangerous too. For the government to expect high-quality offender management from officers reporting workloads of 200% is simply not acceptable, and puts the public at dangerous risk of harm, because ensuring that offenders are properly managed in the community becomes impossible with a caseload double the maximum.
There are two ways of reducing stress in the system: you either reduce the number of offenders, or you reinvent the service. Since the former is highly unlikely, the latter option is urgently required. I expect the government will not do what all the evidence suggests is necessary to protect the public. I hope I’m wrong.